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High Fructose Corn Syrup – Is it really that bad?

September 4, 2009

It’s cheap. It’s sweet. It’s in everything from Coke to bread.

It’s probably the second most popular mantra in healthy eating: avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).  (The first being eat lots of fruits and vegetables!)

What is HFCS anyways? It is a mixture of fructose and glucose, which are combined in different proportions depending on the end use:

  • HFCS-55 (which is the main form used in soft drinks) contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
  • HFCS-42 (which is the main form used in canned fruit in syrup, ice cream, desserts, and baked goods) contains 42% fructose and 58% glucose.

Table sugar, or sucrose, is also a combination of fructose and glucose, only the molecules are bonded together, in a 50/50 ratio.

One of the first things to note is that HFCS is not really that high in fructose, compared to table sugar. HFCS is more like 20%-more-fructose-than-sugar-corn-syrup.

More than 50 fruits, vegetables, and nuts fall within the fructose composition range of HFCS, sucrose, invert sugar, and honey, i.e., 42–55% of the total sweetener being composed of fructose, refuting the widely held misconception that HFCS has an atypically high ratio of fructose. (J. White, “Misconceptions about high-fructose corn syrup: is it uniquely responsible for obesity, reactive dicarbonyl compounds, and advanced glycation endproducts?” J Nutr. 2009 Jun;139(6))

Aren’t fructose and glucose metabolized differently in the body?

Consumed fructose and glucose have different rates of gastric emptying, are differentially absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, result in different endocrine profiles, and have different metabolic fates, providing multiple opportunities for the 2 saccharides to differentially affect food intake. … On balance, the case for fructose being less satiating than glucose or HFCS being less satiating than sucrose is not compelling. (TH Moran, “Fructose and satiety”. J Nutr. 2009 Jun;139(6)).

Another thing you’ll frequently hear is that the processing of HFCS is extremely complex and industrial. In health circles, industrial seems to be something to be feared, which is really something that gets on my engineering nerves.

A popular misconception is that the corn wet milling process for HFCS is more “complex” than the perceived “simpler” or “more natural” processes for sugar, fruit juice concentrate, or agave nectar production. However, the manufacturing processes for all fructose-containing sweeteners must include production methods that can accommodate raw materials carrying a formidable hodgepodge of agricultural dirt and residue, botanical structure and nonessential chemical compounds, and unwanted colors, flavors, and odors. The production methods in each case must refine the raw material into a robust and versatile sweetener that can be formulated into a wide range of foods and beverages. Common unit operations are relied on by all sweetener producers to accomplish this task: pulping, clarification, evaporation, carbon treatment, ion exchange, centrifugation, filtration, and enzyme treatment.(J. White,” Misconceptions about high-fructose corn syrup: is it uniquely responsible for obesity, reactive dicarbonyl compounds, and advanced glycation endproducts?” J Nutr. 2009 Jun;139(6))

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for locally grown foods, and supporting your local economy. But industrialization does not infer inferior or undesirable. Even some local foods will have been through some sort of machinery for sorting and cleaning.

What does this all mean? Overall, HFCS and table sugar are very similar in both sweetness and behaviour, and neither one is ‘healthier’ than another. In addition, all sweeteners have been processed to some extent.

However, due to the fact that HFCS is so cheap and shelf-stable, it is used in many products, often in combination with a very long list of other ingredients. Some of these other ingredients may indeed be detrimental to your health, such as hydrogenated oils. The presence of HFCS on an ingredient list can be a warning sign that the food is highly processed.

Whole foods are absolutely the best choice.  But if you are choosing between sugar and HFCS, look at the other ingredients on the label –  research suggests that they likely matter more.

Both sugar and HFCS should be consumed in limited  amounts – we are eating too much of the sweet stuff, no matter what the source! And yes, sweeteners like agave nectar and brown rice syrup may have other nutritional or metabolical benefits.

But I’m not going to worry about the HFCS in my ketchup anymore.

Canadian’s – notice we don’t see a lot of HFCS on our ingredient labels? That’s because HFCS is called glucose/fructose in Canada!

What is your sweetener of choice? What do you think about HFCS?

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 4, 2009 11:56 am

    “we are eating too much of the sweet stuff, no matter what the source! ” – I agree!

    Once you stop sweetening everything (tea, coffee, cereal, etc), you realize how sweet everything is! I stopped using sweetener in my coffee and now I don’t need it at all.

    if and when I do use sweetener, it’s usually honey or agave.

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